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Feminist Practices

Righting Who Writes Code

Takara Small, founder of VentureKids Canada

Takara Small is good at many things, but perhaps her greatest strength is being able to compartmentalize microaggressions so she can go on about her day. As someone who runs a non-profit, writes about technology, appears on radio and TV, and hosts two podcasts, she has little time to ruminate on the racism and sexism she encounters.

For instance, at a recent tech conference that she was covering for a leading publication, she was asked odd questions. Where is the bathroom? What floor is the event on? “I was so confused,” says Small. “Then I realized they thought I was staff because the only Black people at the conference were staff workers. They assumed anyone who was Black was not media or not a speaker.”

As a form of self-preservation, she adopts a “forgive but never forget” mantra and channels her energy into creating opportunities for others facing barriers in tech and STEM education.

In 2017, Small, 31, started VentureKids Canada, which brings free coding, financial literacy, product building, and entrepreneurship workshops to young people from low-income and underserved communities in urban and rural Ontario.

VentureKids turns common barriers into non-issues. Can’t afford a coding class? It’s free. Don’t have a laptop? They’ll provide you with one. Couldn’t pack a healthy lunch? Food is taken care of. Worried you’ll be the only girl? Classes are gender-balanced. The non-profit has even given students face time with big tech reps from Microsoft, LinkedIn, Google, and Twitter—an encounter that’s super rare if you’re a teenager from rural Ontario.

Says Small: “There’s a misconception that everyone owns a laptop and has access to the internet. That’s not true. In Canada the cost of data is quite high, and the cost of laptops and phones can be prohibitive for some people. I wanted to make sure I was creating free programs that would help people from financially sensitive backgrounds be able to work in an industry that desperately needs workers.”

Desperate is right. Tech leaders have been going on and on about how they want to attract more diverse talent. The research has made it abundantly clear that a diverse workforce leads to more open-mindedness and innovative ideas. According to studies, it’s also just plain profitable. Still, women, Indigenous peoples, some racialized minorities, and LGBTQ+ workers are less likely to be included in the tech economy compared to men and non-racialized workers. Even if they’re in, they don’t always feel included.

Bias is to blame for the lack of diversity, but so is a leaky educational pipeline that limits some people’s exposure to computer science careers at an early age. With VentureKids, Small is determined to patch up parts of that pipeline by showing marginalized kids that they too can be entrepreneurs and tech workers. Often, she’s one of the only people to show them these possibilities.

 Paying It Forward

When LiisBeth’s editor put out a call for pitches about Toronto feminist entrepreneurs advancing social justice, Small was the first person I thought of. Full disclosure: She’s a good friend of mine. We met at Ryerson University as journalism students. Even back then, Small was striving to make a difference, and this made her very, very busy. Now, on top of running her non-profit (she does not pay herself for this work), she hosts two podcasts: I’ll Go First for The Globe and Mail, and Dial Moving for #MoveTheDial where she talks to leaders about all the things that affect underrepresented groups in tech. She also makes her living as a public speaker and journalist for various media outlets including the CBC, The Globe and Mail, and Refinery29.

Small’s upbringing informs much of the work she does today. She was raised by a single mother in Toronto before they moved to Cobourg, Ont. Thanks to a combination of scholarships and financial aid, she was able to move back to Toronto to attend university and eventually break into the tech and media sector. Her journey hasn’t been easy, which makes her more determined to ease the path for the next generation of marginalized folks. “Not everyone can afford to go to college or university. If I really wanted to make a difference, I knew I had to start VentureKids for the kids and families who don’t have the means to pay for coding programs,” says Small.

This past summer, VentureKids launched its first rural-city program thanks to some sweet partnerships with Northeastern University Toronto, Microsoft Canada, the Town of Cobourg, and loyalty program company Points, along with individual donations. As a result, VentureKids secured free space, talented mentors, breakfast and lunch, and roundtrip train tickets for 20 students from eastern Ontario. Every Friday for three months, students aged 14 to 18 took basic web development classes and brainstormed ways technology could solve a specific problem in their community.

A teenager from a rural farm came up with the idea to start an equipment-sharing website where farmers could connect with other farmers to share the cost of expensive equipment and maintenance fees. The idea took off. Now, she’s getting interest from clients outside of her farming family.

Small says students developed several other promising ideas and everyone stuck with the program, despite the up to six-hour roundtrip commute in one day (some had to wake up as early as four in the morning). That tells her underserved youth are hungry for this opportunity. Says Small, “Not every student will create a business that gets funding, and not all startups end up lasting, but the fact that we have students interested in thinking about entrepreneurship is a success.”

Looking to the future, one of VentureKids’s goals is to expand its rural-city program to northern Ontario so that it can reach out to Indigenous and new Canadian students.

Raising a Village to Raise Tech Kids

Running a non-profit is hugely time consuming. Consider this recent tweet from Small: “Seriously thinking about changing my bio to simply read ‘tired’ lol.”

Small does a lot of networking, reaching out to volunteers, experienced teachers, and community partners to donate their time, money, space, expertise and even their laptops. Workhaus lends VentureKids a complimentary office space in their downtown Toronto location. Carole Piovesan of INQ Data Law provides free legal help. Says Small, “One thing I have learned is that there are people and allies who are willing to donate their time and services because they care about our mission.”

In the New Year, Small faces the enormous task of putting a volunteer board of directors together. The five directors don’t have to have a tech background per se, but a diverse set of skills and experiences certainly helps.

In the two years since becoming a non-profit founder, Small has learned a few lessons. She’s learned to seek volunteers who are reflective of the people they’re serving and who understand the difficulties of breaking into the tech sector. By contrast, one well-known business leader offering unsolicited advice clearly didn’t get the program when he suggested cutting the free breakfast and diverting the money to other things. Says Small: “That advice doesn’t really match with how we operate. I think it’s well meaning but when you consider the fact that the populations we’re serving don’t have the resources, then it doesn’t really make sense.”

It’s a hard slog, for sure, but Small says the benefit of a non-profit is being able to focus on the communities and youth they serve instead of worrying about making as much money as possible to please investors and shareholders.

“Finding ways to keep yourself optimistic is really important and VentureKids helps with that,” says Small. “It’s a ray of hope and it keeps me excited about the future.”

Recommended Listening

On top of hosting two podcasts, Takara Small listens to a few herself. Here are her faves:

Harvard Business Review: HBR has a variety of podcasts on leaders in business, women in the workplace, and advice on work dilemmas.

Blacticulate: A British podcast featuring interview with young Black professionals.

Oprah Super Soul Conversations: Oprah’s personal selection of interviews with thought-leaders, best-selling authors, spiritual luminaries, as well as health and wellness experts.

Science Vs: This podcast explores fads and trends to find out what’s fact and what’s not.

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This article was made possible due to the generosity of Startup Toronto.



Related Reading

Sample Newsletter

LiisBeth Dispatch #23


Are you a women in tech founder?  Have you heard about the #movethedial movement?  Neither had we. Until three days ago. So let’s tell you a bit about it.

What is #movethedial? 

#movethedial is a new Toronto-based initiative created to advance women in tech by bringing “…great people, minds, ideas and opportunities together to build connections that promote benefits for women tech leaders, the tech sector, and the economy.”

The kick-off was held on Monday, Jan 16th at MaRS Discovery District.  The organizer’s Twitter post said the event attracted 400 women of which 225 were said to be executives, 112 founders (18 women founders were pictured in the post event Twitter photo), and 39 self-identified investors. There were also 100+ men present.  Panelist Janet Bannister, General Partner at Real Ventures, noticed this while up on stage and ardently congratulated the men in attendance for showing up, as if it were an act of courage or an unusual demonstration of humanity. In my opinion, that gesture seemed a little odd. However, perhaps the fact that there are only three out of 16 people at Real Ventures  who are women (two in administrator roles, plus Bannister) has something to do with it.

Who is behind this new initiative? 

The event was mounted by an organization called Acetech Ontario (Acetech), an established (2013) nonprofit member-based organization whose mission is to create “conversations that matter.” Acetech was described by one attendee as a tech version of YPO (Young Presidents Organization). Membership fees are $4950 for a CEO and $1800 for an executive. They offer power sessions and networking opportunities for qualified tech executives, venture capitalists, and founders (men and women). Their member statistics page states the membership in aggregate represents $550M in revenues and over 4,700 people employed in Ontario. There are no gender-related metrics  (e.g.: the number of women on members’ boards or percentage ) noted.

Acetech’s CEO and four operational staff (community animators, business development, and programming/event management roles) are all women. However, 11 out of 12, or 92%, of their board members are men.

Sponsors of the #movethedial event included DMZ, Start_Up Toronto, and MaRS. Curiously, the event was never listed on the MaRS event calendar.

At The Event

Speakers recounted the usual dismal statistics regarding women in tech, and among other things suggested that to succeed, the tech community in Toronto had to collaborate with other tech communities internationally, like those in Israel (considered to be exemplary).

During one of the sessions, four women industry leaders serving as panelists were asked to “spotlight” and write down the name of one (or more) woman in tech that they admire and would like everyone in the audience to learn about. Three out of four panelists provided names; the fourth drew (literally, on a white board which was held up) a question mark. She apparently could not identify a single one.  This was unfortunate given that the point of the evening was to celebrate the achievements of women in tech in the room, and especially so given all panelists were sent the questions in advance of the event.

After the Event

In a contributed article submitted to the Globe and Mail (a Canadian nationally distributed newspaper) the morning after the event, Acetech CEO and former lawyer, Jodi Kovitz wrote “What we are missing [in tech] are diversity and collaboration. That means men and women working together as one Canadian ecosystem.”  Kovitz says they are planning a series of #movethedial events and activities nationally.

Our Thoughts?

If success were measured by attendance, then this would certainly be a successful start to the #movethedial initiative. And a great opportunity to catch up with colleagues around a good cause. However, the event left me scratching my head. Is a series of conferences going to really move a systemically entrenched dial?

Recent women in tech studies combined with a few decades of lived experience and attending conferences focused on this topic tell us they don’t.

How to Really Move The Dial? Be the Change. 

How can Acetech make a visible dent? It could start by truly leveraging the fact that its members are CEOs with the decision making power to act, and holding them accountable.

How? Start with data.

Acetech could launch an initiative to collect gender-based data on its own members’ companies, share this information for the purposes of defining where the needle is today (benchmarking), and report on the pace at which its community is moving the dial as compared to those outside the community.

How gender-balanced Acetech’s membership today?  Does it know? What is their collective target? Apart from conferences, what is the organization doing policy-wise to motivate its member organizations or CEOs to achieve gender parity in their companies? Will Acetech require members to comply with Ontario Premier Wynne’s 30% women on boards target by the end of 2017? Will Acetech itself comply (remember 11/12 board members are men)? Does Acetech have a sponsorship or partner code that requires a minimum gender equity standard or at least demonstrates the existence of a plan to improve, as part of eligibility requirements? Does Acetech have a diversity procurement program? Does it encourage its members to adopt one?

If they do have such policies in place, it was not mentioned at the event, and if you search its own website for the term gender equity, you will come up empty. The CEO membership application asks for data on sales volume but does not ask members to report on gender parity at board levels.

It’s great to see new commitments to address the women in tech gender gap. However, in my opinion, if Acetech wants to be seen as a credible and effective advocate for gender equality, it would be strategically wise for them to set the bar, implement best practices in their organization, and establish a plan for accountability. Acetech itself need to be the change it wants to see in the tech sector, not just facilitate talks about it.


LiisBeth Does the DC Women’s March on Snapchat!

Introducing 23-year-old Cailley Formichello, activist, entertainer and now, LiisBeth Snapchat journalist and contributor.

Formichello’s first assignment with LiisBeth will be to cover the Women’s March on Washington using Snapchat Story. If you can’t make it to the march, but want to experience it on your own time, we got you covered!  It is also a great way to engage your teenage sons and daughters to participate in this historic event-without even leaving the couch.

To get the LiisBeth Snapchat story you need to first sign up to Snapchat on your smartphone. Then, search for liisbethhq, and add us to your friend list on Snapchat. You will receive notification of the DC Women’s March story as posts are made, including short videos.

Of course, with Snapchat, you have to view the story within 24 hours of it being posted. That said, we will be saving it under Snapchat’s new Memories feature, which will allow us to archive it.

If you haven’t had a chance to try Snapchat, but have been curious about giving it a go, this is a reason to start! Download the app on your smartphone here. Or ask your nearest 15-year-old!

New feminist press startup in Toronto: LiisBeth loves to support everyone, emergent and established, in the feminist press space. So this week, we had the opportunity to meet Patty Hails, founder of a launch-stage startup feminist press called Nasty Women’s Press. Her editorial vision is for Nasty Women’s Press to reflect its readership: smart and direct. Think for women, with a dash of flair from Vanity Fair. Hails moved from Saskatoon to Toronto with her partner last May. She currently has a Kickstarter crowdfunding effort underway. You can check it out here.

Weekly featured research paper: “Class Advantage, Commitment Penalty: The Gendered Effect of Social Class Signals in an Elite Labor Market” by Lauren A. Rivera and Andras Tilcsik. The punchline? “Despite myths of a classless society, social class of origin plays an enduring role in shaping individuals’ life chances and economic trajectories,” according to the authors. “Although men benefit from signals of a higher social class background, the class advantages higher-class women experience are negated by a commitment penalty.” You can find the study here. While this study is based on the practices of law firms, we  believe they apply to women entrepreneurs looking to raise capital as well.

Learn more about working with indigenous peoples in Canada: LiisBeth in collaboration with Women On The Move and Bear Standing Tall & Associates is excited to announce that on Thursday, March 9 from 5:30-8:30, we will be presenting a three-hour holistic indigenous awareness training seminar using the medicine wheel framework. The seminar will have an emphasis on the role of women in indigenous life, and the state of indigenous women’s entrepreneurship today. The session is ideal for anyone who is interested in learning more about indigenous culture, and who currently works with or is planning to work with Indigenous Peoples in Canada and wants to expand their knowledge. The Eventbrite link will be posted soon! In the meantime, hold the date in your calendar! Oh, and due to limited space, we are going to have give Liisbeth subscribers first shot at the tickets.  If you are not a subscriber yet-you could be! In minutes!  Starting at $36/year or $3/month. Just sayin’!

B Lab releases its inclusive economy metrics set: As you know, LiisBeth is a B Corp. We wanted to share this high-level summary of the highest impact metrics from B Lab here. It may help you identify opportunities to improve equity, inclusion, and equality in your company. You can download the document here. And of course, we would love feedback.

  • Jan. 21:  Feminist Art Conference, OCAD U. Features seminars, performances, and a maker market. All day Saturday, Jan 21. Register here.  LiisBeth Panel on Gender, Entrepreneurship & Innovation from 4-5:30 p.m.
  • Feb 8: Women On The Move Workshop with LiisBethian Patti Pokorchak, “Get More Clients NOW — Without Being Pushy nor Salesy!” In this session, you can practice your value proposition and if you do not know what your value proposition is—you really need to attend this dynamic interactive workshop. Get feedback on what works and what does not in a safe environment. Learn negotiation techniques and how to overcome objections. Go from sales fear to sales fun, guaranteed. Learn how to easily ask for the order and get it! 1-2:30 p.m.
  • March 2: She Started It: A Film Screening; JLABS @ Toronto, 5-8 p.m. “She Started It” is a new documentary film that follows five trailblazing young female entrepreneurs through their journeys of entrepreneurship. To register, click here.
  • March 16: Roxanne Gay, author, introduces her new book Feminism & Difficult Women,7-8:30 p.m., Toronto Public Library. Register here.

That’s it!  And if you are here that means you read the whole thing!  (hugs).  The next newsletter will be published Jan. 31st.  Our next feature article will profile the amazing Katelyn Bourgoin, founder of a very cool online network of female entrepreneurs called Vendeve.  And of course, there will be much more.

See you at the march!

Petra Kassun-Mutch
Founding Publisher, LiisBeth